Texas Tech University

Creating a Culture of Connection

The First Year Experience is a new program under the new Rawls Student Experience initiative.

Jacob Gordon | February 8, 2024

First-year students can often find it challenging to create a connection with their school. Along with more independence in their personal life and maintaining good grades, they also have to navigate an entirely new environment.

Created in fall 2023, the First Year Experience (FYE) within the Jerry S. Rawls College of Business hopes to help create a stronger connection among students just embarking on their Rawls College journey.

The FYE program is part of a new Rawls Student Experience initiative within the Undergraduate Services Center at Rawls College. The Rawls Student Experience is overseen by Fallon Contreras, director of student engagement and recruitment, and offers Rawls College students diverse programs and events to help foster community engagement, create networking opportunities, and provide academic support.

The FYE program is headed by two Area of Marketing and Supply Chain Management faculty members: Catherine Duran, professor of practice, and Emily Phillips, lecturer.

“We want [first-year students] engaged from the minute they get here,” said Phillips. “It's about helping them get involved earlier.”

The prevalence of first-year students feeling a lack of an overall connection became clear to Duran and Phillips after conducting some focus groups with business students across the nation through the Pearson Campus Ambassador program.

“We asked these students – juniors and seniors – to look back on their first year of college,” said Duran. “They all said they should have gotten involved sooner. They wished they would have done more, but they also said they absolutely wouldn't do it as a first-year unless it was required and part of a course.”

Enter BA 1301.

BA 1301: the Foundation of the First-Year Experience

Emily Phillips and Cathy Duran prepare to lead a BA 1301 class discussion.

“Part of the issue we're addressing is that first-year business students don't have any other business classes in the building,” said Duran. “If they don't have BA 1301, they may not even come to the building, so they don't know what's going on, who's around, or what the college may offer.”

Each semester, over 1,000 students are enrolled across six sections of BA 1301 as part of the FYE program. Two sections are dedicated to business majors, two sections are dedicated to non-business majors, and two sections are dedicated to online students who are not first-year students at Texas Tech University but are first-year Rawls College students.

Duran and Phillips have emphasized experiential learning to transform BA 1301 into the foundation of the FYE program. The goal is to help first-year students at Rawls College learn by doing more outside of the classroom.

Every student in BA 1301 has several required assignments and activities to complete each semester. Some could be as straightforward as creating a résumé, but others have students working with various Rawls College service centers (such as the Career Management Center or Snyder Center for Business Communication) or attending Rawls College events or special guest lectures.

“All of these outside class activities and experiential activities are forcing students to get involved,” said Duran, connecting BA 1301's assignments to the Pearson Student Ambassador focus group findings. “It's about getting the students past the initial hurdle and making sure they know there are services and opportunities offered within the college and that they should take advantage of them.”

All of the FYE-designated events or lectures are open to any student currently enrolled in or planning to enroll in BA 1301.

“When we do an FYE event, we invite everyone from the first-year cohort,” said Duran “The students currently in our class have to go because of the class requirements. But the ones not in our class that will take 1301 the following semester, we want them to be included.”

One of the more popular guest lectures during the fall of 2023 centered on personal finance.

“We bring in alumni and donors who are wealth managers to lead financial seminars,” said Phillips. “Those seemed to be pretty popular, and a lot of students were very interested. One of them lasted two hours because the students kept asking questions.”

A learning assistant facilitates a student group discussion.

“It's really enhanced our classroom experience,” said Phillips. “Students don't feel quite so lost in such a big room with lots of people they don't know.”

During in-class lectures, Phillips or Duran would stop and have smaller group discussions led by an LA. Each LA would be assigned a zone in the large lecture hall and would work with those students in that zone. After some time, the entire class would reconvene, and the LAs would report some of the highlights of their group discussion to the entire class.

Many instructors might hesitate at the thought of ceding control within their classroom, but Phillips and Duran have embraced it.

“I tell students all the time in class that my aim is to not get them to think like me,” Phillips said, “it's just to get them to think. I love having other voices and perspectives in the classroom because it gives more opportunities for discussion. I feel like that's how students are going to know themselves and figure out what type of career they want.”

Building on the First Semester's Momentum

Students in BA 1301 begin to work on a group activity.

“We've come up with some really interesting ideas that we think students will like and would enrich their learning,” said Phillips. “I don't see anything as impossible; it's just that it might take a minute to figure out how to do them.”

One key difference between the fall and spring semesters is creating events that help encourage students to get involved within Rawls College. During fall semesters, Rawls College holds its annual Rawls Day event, where student organizations and support services have tables and introduce themselves to new and returning students. However, this semester, Duran and Phillips have several networking events planned that include fun icebreakers and bring in student organizations to answer first-year students' questions.

Duran and Phillips are confident in the FYE program's success because they are receiving support from all of the Rawls College service centers and from upper administration.

A huge champion of FYE's support has been Magaret L. Williams, dean of the Rawls College.

“The launch has exceeded my expectations,” said Williams. “This is a truly innovative project. We have received great support from Fallon Contreras and the learning assistants who have been made available to us with support from the TLPDC.”

Dino Villegas, associate dean of undergraduate programs, also praised the FYE program and its focus of experiential learning.

Mitch Kramer, from Fluent Financial, presents at an FYE financial literacy seminar.

While there may be a lot of excitement about the FYE program, Duran and Phillips know they will not see the impact of their work for a few years.

“I think of my clients as the students' next professors,” said Phillips. “It might be another semester or more before our students get to their next business class, so I won't know the impact until we know if the professors are seeing a change in the students' preparedness.”

“We're trying to develop a culture of connection,” said Duran. “We want [first-year students] to be connected to each other, to the Rawls College and their professors, to their major and industry, and to anything that will help them develop relationships and networking.”

In the immediate, though, Williams is already seeing an impact with Rawls College students.

“Already, we are seeing that students feel more comfortable interacting with faculty and with more advanced students,” said Williams. “Students are taking more advantage of the services we provide.”

To stay caught up on the First Year Experience and the Rawls Student Experience, be sure to follow Rawls College of Business Student Experience on Instagram and check the Rawls Events calendar.